One of the most important forms you'll need to fill out when you apply for disability benefits is the activities of daily living (ADL) questionnaire. Social Security asks you questions about how your ADLs are limited because it makes sense that something you have trouble doing at home would also be something you struggle with at work.
Too many disability applicants miss the opportunity to complete this form thoroughly. You should describe specific examples of how you're limited—physically, mentally, or both—in your daily activities. Also, be sure to mention your difficulties with daily activities to your doctor, so that they become part of your medical record.
The ADL questionnaire asks about any difficulties you experience in a wide variety of daily activities, such as grocery shopping, preparing meals, and social engagement. Here are some suggestions on answering these questions in a way that helps Social Security understand the nature and extent of your limitations.
Mobility refers to any struggles you have with moving around. Walking, getting out of a chair, or bending over are all common mobility problems for people applying for disability benefits.
Disability claims examiners and administrative law judges love numbers, so (when possible) describe your mobility problems using a specific amount such as pounds, minutes, or miles. Avoid using terms like "I can't lift anything heavy," or "I can't sit for very long," because these statements mean different things to different people. Try to pair a quantity with a consequence, such as "If I walk farther than 20 feet, I get stabbing pain in my knees, and I need to sit down."
Don't underestimate the importance of activities that many people take for granted, such as brushing your teeth, getting dressed, and taking a shower. For example, if you have trouble buttoning your shirt or tying your shoes due to carpal tunnel syndrome, that signals to Social Security that you have difficulty with fine motor skills—hand movements that are key for most jobs.
Some claimants, particularly those with severe cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer's disease, require help with even the most basic personal needs, like using the toilet. Be sure to mention on the ADL form if a caregiver provides help. If you're completing the form for an applicant with a mental disorder, ask the caregiver for their insight into the applicant's ADLs.
When describing whether you do maintenance around the house such as cleaning the dishes, sweeping the floor, or mowing the lawn, make sure to discuss why you can't do these chores. Every household divvies up these responsibilities to some extent, but Social Security is just interested in whether you could do a chore if you had to.
For example, if you don't prepare meals because your spouse enjoys cooking more, that doesn't tell the agency whether you have any limitations that would prevent you from working in a kitchen. But if you don't cook because medication side effects make it hard for you to follow even a simple recipe, Social Security is likely to rule out kitchen work (and potentially all jobs.)
Common chores that Social Security asks about include:
As with mobility issues, when describing any difficulties you have performing these chores, make sure you're specific and use numbers where possible. Somebody who struggles with using a vacuum cleaner after a rotator cuff repair might write the following on their ADL form:
Limitations from mental disorders aren't as easy to quantify—few people count how many minutes or hours they can maintain concentration or focus. If you need frequent reminders to pay your bills or let the dishes pile up because you get distracted before you finish, let Social Security know. The agency could find that you'd spend too much time off-task at work for any employers to hire you.
Many people who apply for disability benefits have had to give up favorite hobbies or reduce time spent on recreational activities. You can help Social Security better understand your limitations by telling them what you used to do for fun, and why you can't do it any longer.
The agency doesn't expect you to quit everything you enjoy because of a physical illness or mental disorder. But discussing hobbies can be difficult. You don't want to accidentally give Social Security the impression that you're more active than you actually are.
When asked about recreation on your ADL form, steer clear of vague terms like "hiking" or "basketball." Without more detail, the agency doesn't know if you're hiking 1 mile or 10 miles, or whether you're regularly playing basketball or watching it on TV—important distinctions that can mean the difference between an approval or a denial.
Disability applicants, especially those struggling with mental conditions, often report difficulty interacting with others. On your ADL form, it's important to address how your conditions limit your ability to socialize with other people. For example:
Any change in social activities that you previously were interested in can be insightful. If you had been an active member in a church group but lost interest due to depression or anxiety, for example, Social Security will take that into consideration when determining whether you can work a job involving public contact.
Social contacts aren't always limited because of mental disorders—advanced lung disease, muscle weakness, or pain can limit your desire and ability to interact socially.
Getting your ADLs form right can be challenging. Many disability applicants overlook limitations that they consider minor or not worth telling Social Security. But these minor limitations—especially when taken together—can have a major impact on your ability to work.
Consider getting an attorney who can walk you through all of your limitations and help you craft a comprehensive list of your ADLs. You can find a representative using our lawyer locator tool here.
For more information, see Nolo's Guide to Social Security Disability, by David Morton, M.D. (Nolo).
Updated January 31, 2023